December 22, 2017 | Policy Brief

The Kremlin’s Bad Week

This week, the Kremlin found itself facing American pressure on multiple new fronts, in domains ranging from national strategy to military assistance and human rights.

On Monday, the Trump administration released its new National Security Strategy, which asserts unequivocally that Russia challenges “American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster assailed Russia for “engag[ing] in a very sophisticated campaign of subversion to affect our confidence in democratic institutions, in democratic processes – including elections.”

The new U.S. strategy clearly stated the threats we face from Russian development “of advanced weapons and capabilities that could threaten our critical infrastructure,” from the Kremlin’s information and cyber operations, and from its exploitation of energy resources as a source of political influence. This, however, was only the beginning of what has shaped up to be a bleak seven days for the Kremlin.

The administration on Wednesday issued another round of designations under the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (the Magnitsky Act). The designation of five individuals, including the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, came with a stark warning from a senior Treasury official: “We will continue to use the Magnitsky Act to aggressively target gross violators of human rights in Russia.” Kadyrov and his Chechen colleague Ayub Kataev where added to the list for extrajudicial killing and torture, among other crimes.

The same day, news broke that the State Department had approved a commercial license authorizing the export of advanced sniper rifles to the Ukrainian military, which remains locked in battle with Russian forces and their local proxies. While this move will not be the game changer Kiev seeks, it is a welcome reversal of the Obama administration’s short-sighted refusal to provide Ukraine’s elected government with the means to defend itself. It also signals that other equipment Ukraine has been seeking could be on the table in the coming months.

Finally, on Thursday, the administration issued the first-ever designations under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. While the designations included human rights abusers and corrupt actors around the world, the administration also targeted Artem Chayka, son of the prosecutor general of Russia. The Chayka family has long been the target of investigations by Russian anti-corruption advocates.

Next year does not promise to be any kinder to the Kremlin. Moscow will find itself dealing with fallout stemming from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which Congress approved this past August. In January, for instance, reports on Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin’s inner circle and on targeting Russia’s sovereign debt are both due. The reports could roil Russian markets and be a harbinger of biting sanctions to come. Since August, Putin has held two large meetings with Russia’s economic elite, once in September and again on Thursday. This time, Putin laid out a sanctions-shielding scheme which would allow Russia’s oligarchs to return overseas capital through euro bonds issued by the Ministry of Finance.

The Trump administration should build on this week’s actions to ensure that the Kremlin’s bad week spills well over into 2018 and beyond, until we see concrete and verifiable changes in its behavior.

Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @rolltidebmz.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.